Buyer beware: One luxury item can spark shopping spree

/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The gift giving season has come to an end and you might be thinking it’s time to permit yourself one little luxury — a small purchase, not anything that would break the bank. It might be an exotic end table, some designer shoes, or perhaps a fancy throw pillow.

Bad idea, scientists say. Just as a tiny bite of chocolate cake can dash a dieter’s will-power, the purchase of one special item can spark a shopping spree, a new study shows.

In a revealing series of experiments researchers discovered that the acquisition of one high end item can spur us to spend lots more if the original purchase turns out to be a lot nicer than our other possessions, according to the report published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

“When we buy something with unique design elements and it doesn’t fit in, it frustrates us, says the study’s co-author, Henrik Hagtvedt, a professor at Boston College. “This is because the design has intrinsic value. Rather than returning the item, we actively seek ways to make the item fit, often by making complementary purchases.”

So, has Hagtvedt found the shopping equivalent to the “gateway” drug, where a pair of designer shoes leads to a complete wardrobe makeover or a bite of cake leads us to consume the whole thing?

Kind of, says psychologist April Benson, author of “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.”

“It’s even worse than taking a bite of cake,” Benson says. “Once the cake is consumed, you’re not looking at it anymore. With a purchase, you keep seeing it.”

That doesn’t mean we can’t ever buy anything special, Benson says. We just have to be aware of the menace of mismatches.

And, before buying, we need to know whether we can enjoy our one nice piece of furniture or whether we’ll get frustrated because it makes the whole room look shabby in comparison.

“You have to know what you’re getting into,” Benson cautions.